Once described as the “nation’s playground,” (well, at least in the image above) the Brooklyn shore used to be the hot place to holiday. Except, back then, it was less Snooki, and more on par with a holiday Monsieur Hulot would take. As the BHS archives and photograph collection survey project enters its second summer, we’ve uncovered much in our collections, as well as uncovered so much Brooklyn history. The photograph collection tells volumes about Brooklyn. For example, beginning in the 1820s, but largely from the 1880s to the 1930s, people vacationed in Brooklyn–and not just tourists. Locals also took their summer holidays in Brooklyn, where they flocked en masse to the beaches of Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Bath Beach, and Manhattan Beach, among others. In (Brooklyn native!) Phillip Lopate’s excellent anthology of writings about New York, Writing New York: A Literary Anthology, writer and journalist Theodore Dreiser describes the lure of a summer holiday, circa 1890, spent at the Manhattan Beach.
Below are bits of the first two pages of “A Vanished Seaside Resort” (originally published in 1923 in Dreiser’s The Color of a Great City:
At Broadway and Twenty-third Street, where later, on this and some other ground, the once famed Flatiron Building was placed, there stood at one time a smaller building, not more than six stories high, the northward looking blank wall of which was completely covered with a huge electric sign which read:
SWEPT BY OCEAN BREEZES
THE GREAT HOTELS
SEIDL’S GREAT ORCHESTRA
…When Sunday came we made our way, via horse-cars first to the East Thirty-fourth Street ferry and then by ferry and train, eventually reaching the beach by noon.
…Indeed, Thirty-fourth Street near the ferry was packed with people carrying bags and parasols and all but fighting each other to gain access to the dozen or more ticket windows. The boat on which we crossed was packed to suffocation, and all such ferries as led to Manhattan Beach of summer week-ends for years afterward, or until the automobile arrived, were similarly crowded.
…The long, hot, red trains trains leaving Long Island City threaded a devious way past many pretty Long Island villages, until at last, leaving possible home sites behind, the road took to the great meadows on trestles, and transversing miles of bending marsh grass astir with wind, and crossing a half hundred winding and mucky lagoons where lay water as agate in green frames and where were white cranes, their long legs looking like reeds, standing in the water or the grass, and the occasional boat of a fisherman hugging some mucky bank, it arrived finally at the white sands of the sea and this great scene…It was romance, poetry, fairyland.
Here are some of the many images we have of the hotels that were located along the Brooklyn shore. Starting with, of course, the Manhattan Beach Hotel and the Oriental Hotel that stood side-by-side on Manhattan Beach, competing for top honors as to which was the best seaside resort. If you go on to read the rest of what Dreiser wrote about his first journey to Manhattan Beach, you’ll find out who went to which resort…and why.
Brighton Beach, located just west of Manhattan Beach was (and still is) also a summer holiday destination. As described in The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn by Kenneth Jackson and John Manbeck, “Brighton Beach was designed with families in mind. Less rowdy than its sister Coney Island to the west, and not as exclusive as its sibling Manhattan Beach to the East, Brighton Beach is the perfect site for a relaxed summer day at the shore.”
As for Coney Island, it was (and is) a summer destination. As the dramatic difference in the three hotels will testify, Coney Island had something for every taste.
Since we’ve started surveying the BHS Photography Collection, I’ve seen so many images of the Brooklyn that was. When reading Dreiser’s reminiscence describing his journey from Manhattan to Manhattan Beach, I was able to conjure up the scenes he described from actual photographs in our collections. Though the grand hotels that lined the Brooklyn shore have all but vanished today, we luckily have many images of them that will (at least) preserve their place in history. Oh, if only the preservation movement had been around then…